A group of Sri Lankan doctors who have been in police custody for nearly two months were brought before the media to recant their reports of mass civilian casualties in the final days of the civil war.
The men, who looked well-fed but nervous, denied they were withdrawing their statements under pressure from the government, even as they expressed hopes they might now be released. A rights group said there were “significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary.”
Their new testimony on Wednesday — with drastically reduced death tolls and casualty figures during shelling of civilian areas — contradicted reports from independent aid workers with the UN and the Red Cross who witnessed some of the violence.
UN figures show more than 7,000 civilians were killed between January and May. Human rights groups accused the government of shelling heavily populated areas and accused the rebels of holding civilians as human shields. Satellite photos showed densely populated civilian areas had been shelled. Both sides denied the accusations.
When asked on Wednesday about the doctors’ latest comments, UN spokesman Gordon Weiss said: “We stand by our statements.”
On Wednesday, five doctors were brought before dozens of foreign and local media and said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels forced them to exaggerate the damage caused by the shelling and gave them lists of casualty figures to give to the media.
The rebels took medicine and food shipments sent by the government and demanded the doctors tell the media there were shortages, the men said.
“The information that I have given is false ... The figures were exaggerated due to pressure from the LTTE,” said V Shanmugarajah.
“It’s difficult for you to believe, but it’s true,” said Thurairaja Varatharajah, who was the top health official in the war zone.
However, Sam Zarifi, the Asia-pacific director for Amnesty International, said the statements from the doctors were “expected and predicted.”
“Given the track record of the Sri Lankan government, there are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary and they raise serious concerns whether the doctors were subjected to ill-treatment during weeks of detention,” he said. “From the time the doctors were detained, the fear was that they would be used exactly this way.”